A Grammatical Reading of the Second Amendment

The second amendment is variously interpreted by those on the left to mean “Only the army has a right to have guns,” and by those on the right that “blah blah blah…people can own guns” or “we make up the militia that has a right to own guns.”

Both readings are wrong, and my junior year high school Latin class proves it.  There is, in fact, only one clear meaning to the amendment, which is “Because the government needs an army, the people need guns.”

Here’s the text:

“A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

The second clause is pretty straightforward grammatically (“the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”).  Here, “the people” means what it does anywhere else when used by the founding fathers: “we—the citizens.”  Any other reading of this second clause is wrong.

The first clause (“a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state”) has long been recognized as what grammarians call an absolute (in English, it’s in the nominative—or subjective—case, in Latin it’s in the ablative, in Greek it’s in the genitive.)

An absolute clause has three interesting features to it:

1)      It lacks a proper verb, instead getting by with just a participle.

2)      It has a semantic connection to the rest of the sentence (i.e. it shows cause or circumstance).

3)      It is grammatically absolute, meaning “untied” (from the Latin absolutus, which mean, well, “untied.”  It’s the same word that gives us the theological word absolution, in the sense of our sins being untied from us).  That is to say, it’s grammar pieces (subjects, verbs) are not connected to the grammar pieces in the rest of the sentence.

It’s the second and third points here that help to elucidate the Amendment.

The connection between an absolute and the rest of a sentence is always as a qualifier, showing an idea of “because [the absolute], then [the other clause]” or “when [the absolute], then [the other clause]”

For example, another absolute in English might be “The day being rainy, we played inside.”  We properly see a causal connection between the first and second parts of the sentence and understand it as “Because the day was rainy, we played inside,” and not as two separate ideas like “It was rainy.  In a completely unrelated event, we played inside.”

Absolutes always show this kind of kind of connection between the two clauses.  The absolute gives the circumstance or reason why the second clause happens.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but this causal connection has to be there.  It’s an essential part of what it means for something to be an absolute.

An absolute not connected causally wouldn’t make any sense, as in “Tigers being striped orange and black, there is tea in the pot.”  Our mind naturally tries to put a connection between the two, because that’s how English works, and when we can’t find the connection, we reject the sentence as nonsense.

So, then, what’s wrong with reading is as “Since a militia is necessary, we, the people who make up the militia, get to have guns” or “We, the militia, are necessary and so we need guns” or “The people who are part of the militia need guns”?

It’s the third feature of absolutes that tells us why.  Namely, an absolute is unconnected grammatically from the rest of the sentence, which means that the subject of the first part cannot be the subject of the second part.  This means that the “militia” in the first part cannot be referring to the same thing as “the people” in the second part.  They’re not interchangeable.

Again, this is an essential feature of the grammar.  Something like “The cat being tired, it took a nap” would have to be read as “Because the cat was tired, something besides the cat took a nap.”  Again, any other reading would be a misinterpretation of what the grammar says the sentence has to mean.

So if the militia is not the people, what is it?

It’s the army.  Which we need for our security.  Because sometimes the British or French or Indians, or whoever, shoot at us or invade our country or try to steal our land or whatever.  Accordingly, the government (the citizenry incorporate), need to put together an army for the defense of our freedom from time to time.

A posse might be good enough to hunt down Senor Bandito in a Western, but if we’re gonna stop the British, we need a legit, well-regulated fighting force at our disposal.

So what about the second part? And both parts together?

Well, what was the colonists experience with armies?  In the 1760’s, the British army had protected them from the French and (some) Indians.  But a decade later, it was shooting Crispus Attucks in Boston.  Armies were necessary, but there had to be some check on the government using them against the people.

(The teacher in me really hopes light bulbs just went on above your heads)

Therefore, since we need to have an army sometimes, but also because that army can both protect and threaten our liberty, we have to have a way to discourage the army (and the government) from using the army as a tool of oppression: namely, we arm ourselves, as a polite reminder to keep their guns pointing at our enemies and not us.

Accordingly, the only fair reading of the second amendment is, to paraphrase, “Because we have to have an army, the people that the army is supposed to be protecting need weapons, too.”

It was the Founders’ answer to quis custodiet ipsos custodes?  Who will guard our guards?  We will.

There are implications to this.  First, it gives a definitive answer to the “Why are we allowed to have guns?” question.  The answer is not hunting or even personal self-defense.  The raison d’etre for our right to arm ourselves is to protect us against the army that we need.

(I will lead it up to the reader to decide if cops in riot gear and armored cars constitute a well-regulated militia or not.  And whether or not the Founding Fathers, who went to war when an unarmed black man was shot by police in Boston in 1773, would like what we’ve got going on in our communities).

More importantly, though, it completely destroys the progressive idea that somehow, the writers of the Bill of Rights felt the need either to say “we can have an army” or alternately “our army can have guns,” which would have been akin to “we can have secretaries” or “our secretaries can use pens and their pen-using is so controversial that we will amend the very laws of our government to enshrine their pen-ability in perpetuity.”

And my Dad told me that majoring in Classics was a waste of time.


3 thoughts on “A Grammatical Reading of the Second Amendment

  1. So if the militia is not the people, what is it?

    When in active service the militia cease to be people. They become troops. Troops have no Constitutional rights. They operated under a separate legal system of military law which predates the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. It’s jurisdiction is over people not territory. It also has jurisdiction over crimes committed by troops against people.


  2. The two parts of the Second Amendment are phrases, not clauses. You are pussyfooting around the meaning. The FF did NOT want a standing army. It wanted a militia – or militias. OTOH, during the Revolution, they discovered that the Continental Army was superior to militia units in set piece battles – which most Revolutionary War battles were. The same is true over and other again until today. How long does a Reserve or National Guard combat unit train today before actual deployment?


    1. GP, two things:

      1) They are clauses (they have a subject and a predicate); it’s just that one of the clauses is a weird “absolute,” which is a clause, but not set up like one typically.
      2) I don’t think I’m pussyfooting at all around what it means. The entire Bill of Rights was meant as a compromise so that anti-federalists had some guarantee that their worst fears of the Constitution could not come true. Go back and re-read Federalist 29. Clearly, Hamilton himself thinks there is no danger from militias, but his need for a response implicitly shows that there was a great fear not only of standing armies, but of militias as well. The 2nd Amendment is a way of guaranteeing that the worst possible outcome of needing militias from time to time, which would be the army being used by a general to terrorize citizens, would be avoided because the citizens themselves would be armed.

      Moreover, consider the 3rd amendment. Clearly, there would be no need for us to be protected from quartering troops in peacetime unless there would be some times when we would have to quarter troops. Militias might be temporary armies; they might be non-professional armies, but they’re armies nonetheless, and the FF definitely believed that they would need armies from time to time. The 2nd Amendment is a check on this necessary, but unsavory, fact.


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